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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Next Best Films of 2014

I saw around 100 movies that opened in 2014, which is a pretty typical year for me.  Rarely less than 90, hard to see more than 120.

Of those 100 movies. Boyhood is the best.

Here are the next dozen or so movies that I consider to be my 90th percentile for the year:

2.  Whiplash

This is the one other film from 2014 that I've seen twice, though it's possible there are one or two others I'd try to see again.

JK Simmons won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the film also won Oscars for editing and for sound mixing.

Simmons is the leader of the top ensemble at a Juilliard-like performing arts school, and Miles Teller is a student who yearns to be playing drums in this ensemble.  And the two are both crazy.  Simmons might be an actual psychopath, or he might just take a little bit too seriously the idea that you've got to tear down in order to build up.  Which, just to say, is the entire premise behind boot camp for the US armed forces.  But what would drive Miles Teller's student to put up with this?  He's obsessed in his own way, firm in his belief in a youthful romanticism where it's clearly better to be famous and dead than a living nobody.  Which belief he'll happily advertise to his girlfriend, to family at a holiday dinner, to anyone -- though there are so few people who want to be around someone so obsessed that his world is defined entirely by the JK Simmons character.

Simmons is a long-time character actor who's done great work in films like Juno and who hits it out of the park here.  Teller is one of the best young actors around, who amazed in The Spectacular Now and amazes again here.

The film's technical excellence is key to its success.  We have to hear the music, the drums, the subtle change in tempo from one playing of the riff to the next.  And its edited to within an inch of its life, especially in the closing ten or fifteen minutes.

It's in those final minutes that we finally come to understand why these two characters are together. JK Simmons' entire life relies on Miles Teller for validation.  If Teller isn't a great drummer, then there's no mark left on this world for all of Simmons' teaching career.  And Teller can only survive if there's someone to appreciate the greatness he yearns to have.  They might hate one another forever and always, but they need one another as deeply as life itself.

3 & 4

American Sniper & Interstellar

Like Boyhood, Interstellar kept me going for some three hours without much looking at the watch.  The story may or may not make sense.  Belay that; like most time travel the story is a mess when you sit down and think about it.  But it's imaginative and different.  The acting might be better than the movie deserves.  The effects are well-done without ever feeling like video games.  Hans Zimmer provides good musical accompaniment.  I'd be interested to see how it holds up on a second viewing.

And American Sniper hasn't quite left my mind in the month since I've seen it.  If anything, its call seems to be getting louder as the days go by.  Bradley Cooper's performance as the Chris Kyle is sensational.  He submerges himself in the role.  There's no trace of the Bradley Cooper in Silver  Linings Playbook.  There's just this man in this role.  The direction by Clint Eastwood does good service to a script that manages to glorify the lead character's actions in Iraq while being unflinching in its depiction of the damage to the character and his marriage on the home front.  As such, it's pro-war and anti-war and can be read as one wishes.  It's quiet, powerful film-making, another demonstration of Clint Eastwood's stature as one of the leading directors of the past three decades.

And in no particular order:

The documentaries Citizen Four, Remote Area Medical, Elaine Stritch Shoot Me and Life Itself.

Citizen Four won the Oscar.  Set mostly in a single hotel in Hong Kong during the days when Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA's spying programs were beginning to be reported.  It works on multiple levels.  Snowden is someone who understands in abstract and theory the risks of what he's doing who in a matter of days comes to understand the reality of it.

Remote Area Medical is a little-seen movie which depicts one weekend of free medicine at a NASCAR track by the Virginia/Tennessee border.  Who are the people who'll line up in the dead of night for the opportunity to have someone look at their teeth or their eyes?  Who are the people who'll give up a weekend to provide the necessary services?  The documentary never stops to score political points.  It lets the footage speak for itself.  I'm the kid who grew up fixated on the behind-the-scenes aspect of things, the secret corridors at Disneyworld or the secrets of putting up skyscrapers or bridges, or the secrets of making Kermit ride a bike.  The film appealed to the kid by spending lots of time on the logistics of the clinic while simultaneously appealing to the adult who's thinking about the policy issues of our health care system.

The Elaine Stritch movie is very narrowly tailored for people who like showtunes, and isn't quite on a league with the other two.  But the film is such a perfect embodiment of its subject that I feel it deserves mention.

Life Itself is the documentary about Roger Ebert that was overlooked entirely by the Oscars.  It's from the director of Hoop Dreams, another documentary that the Oscars overlooked which was fiercely advocated by Ebert.  In spite of, or perhaps because of, the level of trust between the subject and the filmmaker, it stays just shy of hagiography, taking pains to ask if not to fully tackle questions raised by Ebert's career (prime example, how close to the filmmakers he critiqued should Ebert be?).  Which is fine in the end, because there are people who are better than the rest of us, and Ebert was clearly one of them.

Fault in Our Stars and Edge of Tomorrow

If only every movie for teens could be as good as Fault in Our Stars, and every sf adventure as good as Edge of Tomorrow.

Fault in Our Stars has an excellent cast, in both the primary and supporting roles, holds some surprises to those who haven't read the book, and elicits tears without ever being too (or at least not too too) blatantly manipulative.  Edge of Tomorrow falters a bit in its final scene which is poorly set up, poorly blocked, and thus incoherent, but before then...  Tom Cruise gives a performance with surprisingly little ego, well-matched by Emily Blunt and by a script that is unusually intelligent for the sf action movie.


So it's basically a guy talking in a car for 90 minutes.  And I don't think you'll ever find the concept done better than this.  Tom Hardy shows he's much more than Bane.


Fierce acting by Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo helps cover any ethical uncertainties in the script.  And from a co-writer of Freejack!

Gone Girl

Good performances, a surprisingly puckish sense of humor, Hollywood gloss at its best and most powerful.


Surprisingly good, based on a true story of gay & lesbian Londoners coming to the aid of striking miners during the Thatcher era.  Paint-by-numbers as based-on-true-story movies often are, but the quality of the performances and of the script put it well above average in the genre.

The Best Film of 2014

The Oscars forced me to sit down with my print-out of the movies I'd seen that opened in 2014, and without further ado...

1.  Boyhood

The very notion of the movie is crazy.  The challenges in making a film with a 12-year shooting schedule go far beyond anything.  You can't even compare it to the 7/14/21/etcUp documentary series by Michael Apted that has followed a group of kids from 7 until very close to today with films every 7 years.  It's one thing to just get together every seven years and see what's happened.  You don't have to worry about what happened in the intervening, you just have to report on it.  And in any event, Boyhood director Richard Linklater has already replicated that with his Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight series of films with Ethan Hawke and Juliette Delpy.

Let's look at this:

You can't sign a contract for longer than 7 years for an actor/actress, so for your primary cast members, there's the chance that you could be left adrift if someone becomes rich and famous.  Or they could go Full Robert Downey Jr. for a year.  Or they could die.  And then there's the child you start filming at age 6 who could be lots of different things by age 18, and almost certainly it's bucking the odds to expect the kid to grow up to be Miles Teller.  Or something could go wrong with the director or an important crew member.

Aside from the pragmatic considerations, the script has to evolve because the world changes in twelve years.  You can start the movie with an outline, but it's like the military setting about no plan surviving contact with the enemy.  There are so many opportunities to fall on your face.  As it is, the scenes set amidst the 2008 Presidential campaign work, but there's no guarantee of it.  

And then you've got the money considerations.  Empires in Hollywood rise and fall in a dozen years.  IFC Films, which backed this, is a part of a big entertainment conglomerate, but these companies change management, or they get parceled out in different mergers and business arrangements.  

To set out to make Boyhood is insanity.

And yet it was made, and it is a stunningly good movie, and it is always much harder to talk about the bad in something than about the good.

As a matter of effect, I've now seen Boyhood three times.  It's three hours.  I didn't look at my watch once.  To be sure, the structure of the movie helps because the movie goes into a different year every so often so I don't need to look at my watch to know the movie is progressing, but there are versions of this movie where there would be looking.  Lots and lots of looking.  The "I can't believe it's been an hour and I'm only in year five and I have seven more agonizing years and two more painful hours" looking.  And I would go see the movie again.  Not tomorrow, but it's like a Kubrick movie, 2001 or The Shining, which I'm just thinking I need to see every two to five years, just because.

The editing is seamless, which doesn't help with the Academy Awards.  Showy is nice, seamless is bad.  But the movie cuts from year to year with ease, and any three hour movie that moves as fast as this is a well-edited movie.  Not just between years, but in each scene, especially because some of the scenes go on for a bit.  The conversation between the boy and his photography teacher that goes on at pretty much the exact length it would go on in real time.  My favorite shot is a minute or two of a tracking shot of two people talking as they walk down the street in San Marcos, which uses the same toolkit for these two minutes that the "Before/Beyond" series uses for fifteen minute conversations.  

But what good would it do to cut or not cut in some of these long set pieces if the words being said didn't feel right.  And every word in this movie feels right.  Which, when you think about it, is an amazing thing to say about a movie that was scripted and shot over twelve years with no do-overs for the early scenes.  Every once in a while there's something that skates just to the line of feeling a little bit off.  The scene in the restaurant with the manager who was set on his path by Patricia Arquette a few years earlier is one of those.  It's just a little too perfect.  But the thing of it is that this stuff happens in real life.  I'll go to a convention and some writer will come up and thank me for some piece of advice in a rejection letter or something like that.  Since the script always feels right when it's talking about something I can relate to, I can trust it when it's lingering on a scene I can't relate to, like the birthday party where Mason gets his first gun.  

The soundtrack is well-curated.  

Even on the third go-round, the film was affecting in the final scenes.

I feel like I'm underselling the movie, that it's rife with virtues I can't articulate.  But there's no denying it, Boyhood is the best movie of 2014.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Theory of American Selma's Grand Birdhood Whiplash Hotel Game

12:23 AM: NY Times Oscar blog notes omissions of Roger Ebert and Joan Rivers from the in memoriam list.


12:05 AM: AMPAS got it wrong.  Boyhood is Best!

11:49 PM:  Wait, wasn't that guy a seat filler?

11:47 PM:  And if you compare Graham Moore's speech to Patricia Arquette's you can understand why the editor in me gives Arquette's speech an A for content and a C- for organization.

11:45 PM: Sigh.  The highlight of Graham Moore's speech followed by my disappointment over Best Director.

11:43 PM: me not happy.  wrong director win Oscar.

11:35 PM:  Another mild surprise with Imitation Game winning for Adapted Screenplay.  It is based on a book represented by our friends at the Zeno Agency.

11:30 PM: So the Rivoli Theatre where The Sound of Music premiered.  It was located at 49th and Broadway, with a ornate facade.  The facade was torn down in the 1980s just ahead of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is an old story in New York.  The same thing happened to the blue venetian tile facade of Cinema 1/Cinema 2.  The theatre itself was torn down in the late 1980s not long after I moved to New York, and in its final years it was like most old theatres a duplex, the UA Rivoli Twin with a downstairs and a balcony theatre.  I saw a few movies there before it was demolished.  I am thinking maybe Hoosiers, maybe Secret of NIMH, maybe Rodney Dangerfield's Back to School.

11:26 PM:  I believe Grand Budapest Hotel will, at minimum, be tied for the most Academy Awards given out tonight...

11:24 PM:  That was a stunning twelve minutes of television.  Lady Gaga's Sound of Music performance was moving, and hopefully some to Julie Andrews as it was to me.  Having Julie Andrews come in for the hand-off, having her present the Academy Award for Best Score.  It was danged well-done.

11:10 PM: Heading into the homestretch.  Two screenplay awards, two acting awards, director and picture.

11:09 PM: And from the crowd shots, the performance of Glory might have been even more compelling "in the house" than it was on TV. And watching on TV, everything about the number was awesome.

11:06 PM: Maybe it would have been better not to have NPH complimenting each musical number like a waiter congratulating you on your great choice at a restaurant.  The truly fantastic performance for Glory sounds so sincerely not fantastic when NPH says "fantastic" because his line-reading is just like the compliments for the other less fantastic nominees in this category.

10:58 PM: And to weigh in a bit on the Edward Snowden question -- the US has been a wee bit vindictive toward people who expose truths the government wants hidden, and Chelsea Manning hasn't just been imprisoned but has been imprisoned inhumanely, kept in solitary confinement, etc. etc.  I'd be a lot more critical of Snowden for avoiding US justice if I thought the US government wouldn't go in big for extra-judicial punishment with regard to his confinement before and during his trial.

10:55 Citizen Four is quite a good film.

10:53:  Wait!  That was Glenn Greenwald?  He wasn't, um, help us in customs to see if he was hiding documents someplace?

10:50 PM: The director of Whiplash is only 30 years old.

10:49 PM:  Just to say, the editing category was a very difficult one, with Whiplash, American Sniper, and Boyhood al making very compelling arguments.  The thing with Boyhood is that the editing was brilliant but also so seamless you hardly noticed it was there.  Whereas with Whiplash the editing is very in-your-face important to the movie.  You think of the last long sequence in Whiplash of the Carnegie Hall concert that just goes on and on for way longer than scenes are supposed to go on for in contemporary cinema.  It has to give us Miles Teller drumming, it has to give us JK Simmons leading.  It has to give us some perspective of what the audience is seeing, what each of the major characters is seeing of the other, it can't ignore the other members of the band that are on the stage at that point in time.  I was kind of rooting for Boyhood in this category, but let's face it -- there's some brilliant cutting going on in Whiplash, and the movie wouldn't work at all without brilliant editing.

10:44 PM:  Another surprise, methinks.  Most people were tipping the editing Oscar to go to Sandra Adair for Boyhood, but it's Tom Cross for Whiplash who's taking the podium.

10: 43 PM:  If I had to buy a gadget based on Oscar ads, I'd be buying Samsung hands down.  Their Galaxy ad was much better than the iPad ad a commercial break or two back, and their SUHD TV ad was also quite stunningly good.  I believe the TV ad was using music from the soundtrack for True Romance, which is very Oscar appropriate and also pays tribute to Supporting Actress winner Patricia Arquette.

10:22 PM:  Hearing the score for Grand Budapest Hotel over the course of the evening makes me think kind thoughts about that maybe winning for Best Original Score.

10:21 PM:  Production Design probably another win for Grand Budapest Hotel.

10:20 PM:  That was one of the worst Academy President speeches in the history of Academy President speeches.

10:19 PM:  Maybe I would like Dreamworks Animation more if they had done the Alcatraz movie based on the Brandon Sanderson novels.  They even had a good script!

10:13 PM:  I think most of the money was on How To Train Your Dragon 2, so the win for Big Hero 6 might be the first surprise of the evening.  I didn't see Dragon.  Big Hero 6 was half of a great movie and half an OK animated rendition of a boring superhero movie, but the good half was really, really good.  No complaints here, and on the whole I'm not a fan of Dreamworks Animation, so having a win for Disney/Pixar is also just fine by me.

10:09 PM:  Lego wasn't robbed.  It wasn't good.  I would have walked out if I hadn't been with a friend when I saw it.

10:07 PM:  They've been big on playing romance themes as the presenters walk on.  From Officer and a Gentleman and Dirty Dancing.  Both of which came out before Ansel Elgort or Miles Teller were born, but which I can still remember!

10:05 PM:  What else but Interstellar could have won for Visual Effects.  I think this movie was under-rated, and wish I had gotten round to seeing it once in Imax after doing the 70mm film route the first time around.

10:04 PM:  Ansel Elgort is tall.  So very very tall.  And even when I was his age, I never looked like him.  Or Eddie Redmayne.  Or even the director of Whiplash.  Or Miles Teller.  A guy can get jealous.

9:58 PM:  What would her character in Boyhood think of Patricia Arquette's acceptance speech?  Probably would approve.  But editorially, the mix of rote thank you's to everyone with a closing message wasn't the best presentation of the message.  But, hey, two Oscars for Boyhood.  But Director and Picture are the ones where we must soar over Birdman.

9:49 PM:  And the first American Sniper Oscar of the evening.  This is a movie that is staying with me in the weeks since I've seen it, and I just may find my way to seeing it again.  

9:47 PM:  Two Oscars for Whiplash!  And did I imagine that NPH was on stage in his underwear?

9:35 PM:  slow stretch in ceremony -- time to start in on some dessert.

9:19 PM:  Ya know, that production number was actually awesome.

9:16 PM:  Even watching the montage for Boyhood gives me goosebumps, bringing back multiple great moments from a spectacularly good film.

9:12 PM:  That said, Ida is the only one of the foreign film nominees I saw.  Which doesn't make it the best foreign film I saw last year.

9:11 PM:  Never knew you could win an Oscar for boring movies where a good chunk of the run-time is taken up with pictures of nuns eating soup.

9:10 PM:  I hated Ida.

9:09 PM:  I'd be happy if I was in the movie business and had to hear 45 seconds of Milena Canonero singing my praises.  She has been around, doing costume design for great movies and great directors for several decades.  Previous Oscar for Barry Lyndon, which might be the one perfect film where every shot fully realizes the director's intentions.  And which came out almost 40 years ago.

9:07 PM: The Google Play ad is movies or content specific, but I don't think it's a very good ad.

9:06 PM: Grand Budapest Hotel wasn't my favorite movie of the year, but it is the most-appreciated by me of Wes Anderson films.  Wes seemed very happy listening to the acceptance speeches for the Costume Design and Makeup/Hair Styling Awards.

9:01 PM:  Both Reese Witherspoon and Patricia Arquette have a nice white-on-black going.

8:59 PM:  I say that enviously because I have to match shades with my different items of clothing, and J Lo managed to do it with one piece of her closing and her actual skin tone.  I cannot pull that off.  I absolutely cannot.

8:57 PM:  With that costume, J Lo should be giving the  Costume Design Award!

8:56 PM:  Both the AmEx and Samsung ads gets kudos for being movies-specific.  Car ads almost always bore me beacuse i have zero interst in ever owning one.

8:55 PM:  The Samsung ad was more entertaining than some of the nominated films!  And the opening number.

8:47 PM:  I like Liam Neeson's black-on-black look.

8:45 PM:  What a weird thank you speech.  It's always good to thank your parents, but a lot of people who haven't seen the other less-viewed award shows where Simmons has won maybe haven't heard him thank anyone else.  As a backstage kind of guy by profession, that leaves an off note for me.

8:40 PM:  Whiplash is my 2nd favorite film of the year, so the expected Supporting Actor win for JK Simmons suits me just fine.

8:38 PM:  And the number is meh.  Too tasteful.  Too not anyone else.

8:34 PM:  Neil Patrick Harris is very definitively now being Billy Crystal, but I'm no fonder of having a a lot of CGI in this production number than I am in the typical overblown SFX spectacular.

8:31 PM:  Best  and Whitest -- Cut to Benedict Cumberbatch in white tux.

8:30 PM:  ANd we're off.  Doogie Howser is on stage!

8:29 PM:  And all the gumption it took to make Boyhood in the first place is outweighed by the fact that the movie which results from it is amazing.  

8:28 PM:  And then there is Boyhood.  Boyhood was an actual challenge to film.  A lot can happen in twelve years, so you set out on this journey with an idea how you want to end it and no idea if you actually can.  Your cast can die on you.  The world can change on you.  The company that's bankrolling you can disappear.  The cast can disappear without dying.  There's a reason why nobody's tried before what Richard Linklater tried with Boyhood.

8:26 PM: Evil is represented by the late surge for Birdman, which was an interesting movie but not that good a one.  The idea of doing a movie without cuts has been done before, as far back as Hitchcock's Rope.  The idea of doing a movie on essentially one set has been done before.  If you want to skulk about backstage you can go and watch the wings of the NY City Ballet in Ballet 422, a decent enough documentary that's playing now.  And the movie has Michael Keaton, but it doesn't really use him.  The more interesting character by far is Edward Norton's.  There are lots of female characters but I can't tell one from the other, during the movie or in retrospect.  I would be really disappointed if this movie won Best Picture.

8:22 PM: Some years I have a mild interest in the outcome, but this year, I feel like I'm at the cusp of a great battle between Good and Evil.

8;20 PM - fun with Google, which was acting confused about my business and work accounts, but signed in and ready to go!

11:37 AM -- If tonight's Oscars are as fabulous as the title of this blog post, if Neil Patrick Harris' monologue is half as brilliant, we'll be in for a fun evening!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Pre-Rejection Rules!

Chuck Wendig just did a Terrible Minds post telling authors not to "pre-reject" their work, i.e., to finish their novel, say it's not good enough, and then dump it into the drawer or the trunk on top of all the other not good enough thing.  And maybe I'm reading too much into what Chuck says, or maybe I should understand that it should be implied that Chuck is taking a position really far on one side as a counterweight and not as an actual "position" position.  But as I'm reading his post, he doesn't say it's ever right to take a manuscript and put it into the pile inside the drawer inside the trunk.

And that's wrong.

I'm going to reject his thesis in two ways that are flip sides of the same coin, the you coming to me, and the me taking your manuscript to the world.

In both instances, I note the old, true and wise saying "you've got one chance to make a first impression."

If I as an agent look at three or four bad books by an author, I am not likely to sign up to look at another.  I'm not saying "never."  It's possible to see that an author's on a growth and learning curve which I want to encourage.  But even for that to happen, the books do need to get to a point where they look interesting.  It can't be 60th percentile work or 20th percentile work.  You need to be in the 80th or 90th or 95th percentile.

You can't count on sending me everything you write, even the things that not even you think are good enough, and expect me to be around for long enough to get to the thing that's finally good.

I'm not saying you need to be perfect.  There are many authors on the JABberwocky list that sent me multiple novels before we found the one we could market.  One of the things I'm good at is spotting that little something extra in an OK novel that helps me figure out which authors have a higher ceiling they can reach and which are capping out at OK.  As examples, both Brandon Sanderson and Peter V. Brett sent me other novels that pre-date their "first" novels.

There's a way in which Chuck Wendig could be right.  The majority of my clients, I expect, have this stage in every novel they work on where they hate the book.  And then they grow out of it.  If you're a new novelist and you have that stage and it goes on too long, maybe "pre-rejection" will be a bad thing.  

However, it is more often the case that the new novelist is inclined to be generous in appraising their own work.  On the whole, if an author writes a first or third or eight novel and decides one or all need to count as practice, that judgment is probably correct.  

Hence, I think there is nothing wrong with coming up to Joshua Bilmes, an agent that can help get your book out to the world, and saying "out of everything I've written, this is the first book I think is good enough to send out." You'll be joining a long line of distinguished authors who have practice novels sitting in a pile in a drawer in a trunk in the attic.

And now the flip side of my coin:

Sometimes, there is nothing I hate more than the OK first novel.  There's an ill-defined boundary between selling an OK first novel that is good enough to have people saying "this is only OK, but I'm really eager to see more" and "this was OK, but I was hoping for better."  In one of those scenarios, the OK first novel can launch a career which the first novel never comes to define.  In the other scenario, the OK first novel can kill a career at birth.

My goal as an agent isn't to sell a novel for an author.  It's to launch a career and sell many novels and establish a career.  Because there is only one chance to make a first impression, we can be hurt when we sell the wrong first novel.

I read Matthew Woodring Stover's Heroes Die before he'd sold his first novel.  That's a long time ago; Heroes Die is now old enough to have a driver's license, and it's 20 years or more that I might have read an early draft of it.  In my recollection, that book is right up there with Peter V. Brett's Warded Man or Brandon Sanderson's Elantris as a great fantasy debut, and I would encourage all of you to try it.  Odds are pretty good you will be eager to continue with the Caine series.  There's just one problem with Heroes Die.   It wasn't the first impression.  There were two other novels by Matthew Woodring Stover that came out before it which weren't as ambitious. There's a line in Bull Durham about Nuke LaLoosh wanting to "announce my presence with authority," and I think Heroes Die would have announced this author's presence with more authority than Iron Dawn and Jericho Moon.  

So I must reluctantly give advice contrary to Chuck Wendig's.  If you think you've written something that isn't ready to send out, pre-reject it.  Do yourself that favor.  Because writing is hard.  And I want to work with authors who are self aware, and who want to be better than OK.